John Nathaniel Williams (1878-1915)

John Nathaniel Williams (1878-1915)


John Nathaniel Williams was born on 24 January 1878 in the affluent London borough of Kensington. He was one of seven children born into a renowned lineage of English bankers and Members of Parliament. His father was Sir Robert Williams (1849-1943) and his mother Rosa Walker Simes, daughter of a Sussex landowner. Sir Robert was made 1st Baronet of Bridehead, the family estate, in 1915. Following the early death of his elder brother, Robert Williams (1874-1881), John became the eldest son and heir apparent. John’s lavish coming of age celebrations in 1899 demonstrate the family’s wealth. The event spanned several days, involved luxurious gifts, and ended with fireworks by a Mr Brock, famous for his Crystal Palace displays.[1]


John was educated at Eton and New College, Oxford. He graduated with Master of Arts in 1901.[2] During his time at Oxford he was gazetted into the Volunteer Brigade Dorset Regiment, attaining the rank of Lieutenant in 1899, age 21.[3] He was described as well-liked and had an easy-going personality that was devoid of ostentatiousness. He was also known as being a well-rounded sportsman and athlete, particularly for his cricketing skills.[4] John appears to have acquired a penchant for gambling at University. He left in 1901 with bookmaker and moneylender debts totalling £4,500 which were settled by his father.[5] In the same year, the census showed John boarding at London’s fashionable Cox’s Hotel on Jermyn Street, popular with high society and politicians.[6] Within six years, John accumulated further betting debts of more than £12,000, again settled by his father. John was declared bankrupt in 1909, owing over £20,000. John’s representative at the bankruptcy hearing declared him to be ‘a young man who became obsessed with a desire to bet, the fever having attacked him.’[7]


John next appears aboard the Tainui which departed Plymouth on 20 July 1911, sailing for Wellington. He was travelling second class and his occupation was listed as ‘gent’.[8] John’s great-nephew Sir Philip Williams recounts that John’s father ‘gave his son an ultimatum to live abroad as a Remittance Man or be disinherited completely.’[9]  This was not John’s first visit to New Zealand. During 1902 and 1903, he was in Auckland, possibly visiting his sister who was married to Frederic Wallis, Bishop of Wellington from 1895 to 1911. During his stay he played cricket for Lord Hawke’s XI on the invitation of the team captain, an old friend from his school days.[10] After his subsequent arrival in 1911, John worked as a metallurgist for the Grand Junction Mining Company in Waihi where he was still working at the outbreak of World War One.[11]


On 12 August 1914, at Paeroa, John signed up for military service with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. His appearance in his friend Gerald ‘Tad’ Morpeth’s war diary was usually associated with lively stories of antics on leave, discipline for late returns to camp, and John’s fondness for playing bridge. Private John Nathaniel Williams died on 25 April, 1915, during the New Zealand Expeditionary Force’s landing at Gaba Tepe, Gallipoli.[12] According to his entry in De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour he died ‘setting a most gallant example’ and that by ‘dying in the ranks’ he had ‘done more for this force and perhaps for the Empire than he would have done as a commissioned officer.’[13] His war medals were sent to his father who had recently received a baronetcy, to which John was heir. His younger brother, Philip Francis Cunningham Williams, became the 2nd Baronet of Bridehead on the death of their father in 1943.


John was the youngest son in a wealthy and powerful British family. Following the death of his elder brother, Robert Williams, in 1881, John became heir apparent to the Williams’ fortune and family estate. Its value was not inconsiderable, reported to be nearly £209,000 in 1943.[14] However, despite his affable nature, John evidently had a gambling problem. This problem was made public in the British media and would have embarrassed his family. As such, John was given the choice of exile abroad or disinheritance. It is possible that New Zealand was chosen because his elder sister resided there as wife of the then Bishop of Wellington. John was able to find employment and friendship in Waihi. He did not appear in the Police Gazettes nor was he reported for any misdemeanours in the press. This suggests exile to New Zealand was, for John, a redeeming factor in his life.

Figure 1 – John Nathaniel Williams, 1914 (far left). Source: “The Morpeth Waiheathens (WWI) 14-0333,” Tauranga Memories: Remembering War, Tauranga City Libraries, http://tauranga.kete.net.nz/en/remembering_war/images/show/8934-the-morpeth-waiheathens-wwi-14-0333.


Acknowledgement Allan Morpeth. WWI photograph of four friends and brothers outside a tent. They are identified as Nat Moore, Tad, and Wick (1914).

John’s eagerness to enlist for World War One demonstrates a patriotic and militaristic ethos probably instilled in him by his family, education, and upper class status. That he enlisted with the New Zealand force in the rank of Private, instead of taking a commission offered by the British forces, also speaks to a camaraderie he found among those he befriended in New Zealand. This close friendship is particularly evident from his friend, Tad Morpeth’s, diary.


[1] “Coming of Age of the Son of Colonel Williams M.P.,” Western Gazette, 8 September 1899, 6.

[2] “For King and Country,” Dundee Evening Telegraph, 7 June 1915, 4.

[3] “A Memorable Day at Bridehead,” Bridport News, 8 September 1899, 8.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Young Man’s Betting Losses,” Globe, 9 February 1909, 5.

[6] “1901 England Census,” database, Ancestry https://www.ancestry.com, entry for John N Williams (age 23), St. James, Westminster, London.

[7] “Young Man’s Betting Losses,” Globe, 9 February 1909, 5.

[8] “Passenger Lists Leaving UK,” database, FindMyPast https://www.findmypast.com, entry for Mr J N Williams, Tainui, 21 July 1911.

[9] “John Nathaniel (Nat) Williams,” Waihi Museum http://www.waihimuseum.co.nz/museum-and-research/world-war-i/john-nathaniel-williams (accessed 12 July 2018).

[10] Barry Patemen, “Private Williams of Waihi,” New Zealand Cricket Museum http://nzcricketmuseum.co.nz/williams (accessed 14 July 2018).

[11] “New Zealand Army WWI Nominal Rolls, Vol: 15 Aug 1914 – 31 Dec 1915,” database, Ancestry http://www.ancestry.com, entry for John Nathaniel Williams,.

[12] Allan Philip Morpeth, The “Waiheathens” at Gallipoli, Tauranga City Libraries Research Collections, 2008, http://tauranga.kete.net.nz/remembering_war/documents/show/429-ebook-epub-format-the-waiheathens-at-gallipoli-by-allan-p-morpeth (e-book accessed 23 May 2018).

[13] “De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour Volume 1,” database, Ancestry https://www.ancestry.com, entry for John Nathaniel Williams, 380.

[14] “England and Wales National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations) 1858-1966,” database, Ancestry https://www.ancestry.com, entry for Sir Robert Williams, probate date 19 October 1943.

Comments are closed.

Enter your email address to subscribe to Hunting Kiwis and receive notifications of new cemetery listings by email.


Blog Stats

  • 223,547 hits
%d bloggers like this: